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Avant garde performance at Artaud 1980-1986 (mostly George Coates)

This is Edward Sisson, manager for George Coates 1978-79 and 1983-1987, and producer of the San Francisco International Theater Festival 1980 & 1981, of which George Coates was Artistic Director. I thought you might be interested in our experience at Project Artaud theater in the 1980s.

Our first event at Project Artaud was part of the first SF Int. Thtr. Fest., June 1980. Our festival was hosted at (and a project of) Intersection Arts Center, then at 756 Union St., and the first group of the 1980 festival was “Le Plan K,” of Belgium, performing Quarantine (Quarantaine in the original French). This opened at Intersection on June 4, 1980, and received such a rave from Bernie Weiner of the Chronicle that audiences were immediately packed. George Coates immediately got the idea of moving the show after its 2-week Intersection run to Artaud, and the Plan K company got to work promptly to make a much bigger inflatable balloon-type item which was part of the set. We did I think one performance at Artaud, on very short notice, to yet another packed house, probably on about June 15 or so.

George’s next piece at Artaud was “are/are,” in 1982, the follow-on to 1981’s “The Way of How,” with composer and performer Paul Dresher (who is still operating, and very near you, renovating a new space on Poplar St.), John Duykers, Rinde Eckert, and Leonard Pitt. This was a site-specific piece that took advantage of the very deep space (which had not been renovated into a more traditional theater as it is now by Z Space). I was not involved in producing this, because in 1982 I was managing Chris Hardman’s Antenna Theater. “are/are” only played Artaud, nowhere else, due to being site-specific.

I went back with George in late 1983 to produce “SeeHear,” opening in 1984, which did not play at Artaud, but our next production was “Rare Area” (or “RareArea”) which premiered in Belgium and then at Zellerbach Hall in June 1985, and then to UCLA Royce Hall.

Meanwhile, my now-former company, Antenna, premiered “Russia” at Artaud in Feb.-March 1985, taking advantage of the Artaud’s deep and wide performance space; but I went only as a spectator, and have no production stories to tell of that show.

The Coates Co. then rented Artaud to produce “Rare Area” for an extended run. My memory told me we opened in October 1985, but my recent research shows it opened November 15, 1985, and ran until Jan. 5, 1986, whereupon we moved it promptly to Herbst for 3 more performances. Bill Cook was manager of the theater at that time; he had been chief of the California Arts Council (he died in 1999 of a heart attack at age 48).

The very long run at Artaud made us a lot of money, which we invested to produce “Rare Area” in Los Angeles in August 1986 at the then Doolittle Theater (now the Ricardo Montalban Theater) at Hollywood & Vine. A few stories of the “Rare Area” Artaud run will be of interest.

First, the performance space appeared to be accessible to the artist resident apartments via the balconies, and the musicians, who were using the then-best computer equipment, told me they would have to break-down and store their equipment every night, to avoid theft — and that they would charge higher performance fees as a result. I offered to move into the theater and live there, sleeping every night, if this would avoid that problem, and they agreed. I set up two saw-horses behind the stage, put a thick piece of plywood on them and a foam pad on that, and I slept in the giant theater space every night during the set-up and run. I had been living in our studio in Berkeley (a vacant elementary school) so this was not all that different from my accustomed life-style. I used some artist’s space for showers, and became a denizen of the Mission Dist. during the run. There were no thefts.

Second, Coates Co. productions involved the use of a bank of 8 slide projectors to shoot ever-changing images into the performance area, from behind the audience. At Artaud this meant setting-ups table at the top back of the audience seating-riser structure. However, people walking up to take their seats would cause jiggle of the entire structure, making the projected images move. The technicians solved this problem by suspending the slide-projector table on high-tension wires from the ceiling pipes and beams, and then drilling holes into he floor and running high-tension wires down to the concrete floor, such that the projector table was entirely suspended in air, free altogether of the seating-riser structure.

Third was the night that George Lucas came to see the show, without advance notice to us he was coming with a small entourage. I saw him in and seated him in perfect-view comp seats mid-way up in the riser seats. Down near the front row were comp seats given to some people from KQED (public TV). But then, unexpectedly, some people from a network TV affiliate showed up. I was off on the other side of house at the time, and George Coates took charge of seating the network TV people –which he did by giving them the KQED peoples’ seats, and asking the public KQED people to move up to the seats George Lucas had, and asking George Lucas to vacate and move up. I knew nothing about this until I turned and saw George Coates leaning to George Lucas (he did not recognized George Lucas) asking George Lucas to give up his comp seats and move to the top back row — which George Lucas very politely did. I could not believe my eyes as I saw this from distance. As soon as George Coates came down out of the audience I whispered to him “George, you just unseated George Lucas!” Lucas took no offense — after the performance he wandered around the space, looking at the various lobby displays.

Fourth was the time philanthropist Phyllis Watts came to see the show. this is what led to her making a very large donation to fund 1989’s “Right Mind” at ACT (which was closed abruptly on Oct. 17, 1989, by the earthquake, which caused part of the ceiling to collapse into the seats, fortunately 2 hours before the performance was to start, so no one was injured). Phyllis Watts gave an oral history interview about this in 1991, which is online, and which includes this:

“Crawford: Today let me ask you about some of your favorite grants and some special ones. What would you say was the most controversial grant that you made?

“Wattis: Well, I think you brought that up. I think maybe doing George Coates, the performance artist. I think that was controversial. Let me see. I was really giving mostly to established things. Through the foundation, it was mostly established things.

“Crawford: How did you come to Coates?

“Wattis: Well, I had gone to his performances and been giving [to] him personally. … I had seen George’s work — Rare Area — down at Theater Artaud, and I thought he had a tremendous amount of talent. I still do. But he was outside of the establishment, shall I say, and a lot of people [hadn’t heard of him] . So I think that was maybe the most controversial we’ve had from the standpoint of the foundation. Once before I had gotten the foundation to give to him. It was out of our area, but the idea was that the foundation do some of these to diversify our base. So we gave them a grant at one time — I can’t remember the amount. It was after Rare Area was successful, and they had an offer from the State Department — do you remember?- -to take it to Yugoslavia and Germany.

“It was all wildly successful, you know. Europe is ready for these things more than they are in this country. So I guess that was my most controversial, and I think I had to kind of sell the foundation on that. Some of the members of the board of the foundation were so conservative, you know, and that’s one reason I didn’t bring a lot of these things to them. I did everything personally, as I mentioned.”

In May 1986, at Artaud, George opened a collaboration with Ellen Sebastian, titled “Post-Modern Moms.” This was Ellen’s riff on comedienne Moms Mabley as a returned spirit from the dead, commenting on life and culture of 1986, directed and co-authored by George. Ellen had been the director on Whoopi Goldberg’s 1983 Moms Mabley show at the Victoria Theater, and the two had often riffed on each other with their different Moms personas. Georg and Ellen did this as an independent project outside the Coates Co. nonprofit structure, so I was not directly involved in this, and don’t have any production stories.

Artaud was a great space to perform during the 1980s, and vitally helpful to new artists. It appears still to be so, under the Z Space operation.

Best Wishes, Edward Sisson

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